Reporting from Fresno — An 8-year-old girl, kidnapped from her yard by a stranger — the object of an intensive overnight search — was returned to her mother alive Tuesday after a dramatic rescue by a quick-acting unemployed construction worker.
"It's truly a miracle of God that she is with us…we certainly beat the odds," said Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer.
The third-grader and a 6-year-old friend were playing in the driveway in front of their apartment complex about 8:30 Monday evening, when a man, whom police later identified as 24-year-old Gregorio Gonzalez, told them he would buy them gifts if they came with him.
Neighbors who saw the man talking to the children shouted at the girls to run. Gonzalez allegedly grabbed the 8-year-old and forced her into an older rust-colored Chevrolet pickup truck with white stripes.
The girl's mother and a neighbor, Enrique Miguel, followed in his car.
"I saw that same truck around here for days," Miguel said. "We chased and chased but lost him."
Authorities issued an Amber Alert, which quickly escalated to a statewide bulletin about a small girl last seen wearing a purple "Winnie the Pooh" sweatshirt. About 130 officers were put on the case, and helicopters scanned the city. Alerts flashed on freeway signs and appeared during television shows.
Everyone working through the night knew the clock was ticking. Dyer would later point out in a news conference that most kidnapping victims are killed within the first 24 hours.
Just down the street from where the girl was kidnapped, Victor Perez was discussing the story with his neighbor.
"He was saying, 'Man, what could we have done different to keep that from happening?' I was saying, 'We've just got to keep a lookout for that truck.' "
On Tuesday morning, the first thing Perez did was turn on the TV to see if there was anything new in the case. Police had released surveillance camera footage of the truck. As Perez and his cousin Flor Urias watched the grainy black-and-white images, Urias looked out their living room window and saw an old rust-colored pickup with stripes making a U-turn in front of their house.
"I was saying, 'Victor, that sure looks like that truck. Is that the truck? That is the truck,' " Urias said.
But Perez was already out the door giving chase in his 1988 Ford pickup, which he always backs into his driveway so he can leave quickly if he needs to.
The first time he caught up to Gonzalez, Perez waved and rolled down his window as though asking for directions.
"I told him, 'Hey man, let me ask you something.' He said he couldn't talk, his battery was about to die. I said 'I have [jumper] cables.' And I'm thinking, 'Maybe it's not him, he seems like a friendly guy.' Then while we were still talking he sped away."
Perez caught up and forced Gonzalez to the side of the road. Gonzalez threw his hands over his head in anger.
He had been holding the little girl down. When his hands shot up, her head popped up over the dashboard and Perez saw her.
"I made eye contact with her. And that's when I wasn't scared anymore," Perez said. "I won't kid you, until then I'd thought 'Does this guy have a gun?' But once I met her eyes, I just thought 'I've got to get that little girl out of there.' "
Gonzalez sped off, at one point driving on the sidewalk.
Perez kept trying to force Gonzalez to the side of the road, finally pulling his truck directly in Gonzalez's path. His plan was to rush the driver's door. But Gonzalez pushed the girl out the passenger-side door and fled.
The girl's first words to Perez were, "I'm scared."
"I said "You're OK now.' Oh, man, she was shaking so bad. She kept saying 'Am I going to be OK?' and I kept saying 'You're OK now.' "
Police say the girl told them Gonzalez took her to a wooded area near a canal where he sexually assaulted her and at one point threatened to "physically harm" her if she did not get back in the truck. Seven witnesses identified Gonzalez. Some witnessed the kidnapping; others witnessed an incident earlier Monday when he allegedly exposed himself to two young girls and then got away in the same truck.
Gonzalez, who lives with his grandparents, had previously been arrested on charges of possession of a sawed-off shotgun and domestic violence. He was on felony probation. About 40 minutes after he pushed the girl out of his truck, he was spotted in central Fresno by California Highway Patrol Officer Dustin Dimmer and taken into custody.
As Perez was chasing Gonzalez, her mother was home after a night at the police station, sobbing uncontrollably. Miguel, the neighbor who had helped her chase the kidnapper, could hear her through the thin walls.
Then, through the walls, he heard a phone ring. She came next door to tell him her daughter was alive.
"She was crying and crying all night," he said. "Then suddenly, hope. I was afraid there was no hope, but there was."
Marcum is a special correspondent.